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U.S. military says questions about gays would help if 'don't ask' were ended

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favor repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but not until a study recommends how to make the change.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favor repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but not until a study recommends how to make the change. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Defense Department survey sent this week to 400,000 service members asks such provocative questions as whether its troops have shared shower facilities with a gay person or if they would be comfortable using a base commissary if their neighbors were gay.

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The survey, part of what the military says is its effort to prepare for the possible integration of gays and lesbians into the armed forces, provoked immediate criticism from some human rights groups, which called the survey biased and apt to fan fears of gays in the military.

The unauthorized public disclosure of the $4.5 million survey and the fierce reaction to it also prompted the Pentagon to worry that the fallout could skew the results of the poll.

(User poll: Is the 'don't ask, don't tell survey out of line?')

Defense officials said the survey is critical to help prepare the armed forces for the likely end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays from serving openly in the military. The policy is on the verge of being revoked by Congress and the White House.

The Defense Department began conducting the confidential survey this week. But the polling ran into trouble almost from the start when news organizations obtained copies and highlighted parts that asked service members if they had ever shared a tent with gay colleagues or how they would react if required to do so.

The Pentagon had tried to keep the survey questions a secret, saying that public disclosure could influence the outcome of the polling, which is scheduled to continue until Aug. 15.

On Friday, press secretary Geoff Morrell said the Pentagon was "discouraged" that the survey had been leaked and charged that "inflammatory" news coverage could discourage troops from participating or affect their answers. "We need this survey, and we need people to participate in this survey to get a sense of the attitudes of the force," he said.

Several gay rights groups, however, said the survey was biased. In particular, they said the wording of the questions reinforced prejudices and fanned fears that troops would be forced to bathe, room or socialize with gays and lesbians.

Servicemembers United, the nation's largest group of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, said the survey includes "derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions, and insinuations."

"The Defense Department just shot itself in the foot by releasing such a flawed survey to 400,000 servicemembers, and it did so at an outrageous cost to taxpayers," said Alexander Nicholson, the group's executive director.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonpartisan legal services group providing counsel to troops discharged under the policy, said the survey's design could yield skewed results.

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